When first responders arrive on a fire scene, they face the unknown. From outside the structure, it is often difficult to predict the situation inside. Because this uncertainty impacts decisions about where to concentrate resources and how to approach and enter the scene, firefighters must prepare for a host of scenarios that can put them in harm’s way.
Under these circumstances, having more information can lead to a safer environment for firefighters and increase response efficiency. Technology can help responders become better informed as they approach a fire scene and increase the effectiveness of their initial entry.
One way that firefighters now obtain this information is through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones. These devices extend the reach of firefighters by flying over a variety of hazardous scenes—including those with limited accessibility or excessive risk to humans—and providing valuable information to the responders below.
UAVs assist firefighters with diverse emergencies
Acceptance of drone technology is growing in other first responder professions. Law enforcement uses drones for operations like surveillance of public areas and traffic control. UAVs also offer significant benefit to disaster response.
For firefighters, the small size of a drone allows surveillance of spaces that are inaccessible. Drones are often quicker to deploy than a manned aerial vehicle and can be in flight before the response team arrives on the scene. This allows the responders to have additional information to study en route.
In Illinois, firefighters launched a drone at a house fire to get a 360-degree aerial view. From this perspective, the crew could determine where to focus their firefighting efforts without unduly increasing the risk of injury to firefighters. Drones have also helped in rescue efforts. In Virginia, the Bedford Fire Department launched a drone to locate a lost hiker and rescue her.
For large-scale emergencies, UAVs can be equipped with hazardous material detectors that can help responders investigate a scene from up to 70 miles away. Rather than expose a HazMat team to chemical or other hazardous materials, a technician can use the drone’s sensors to remotely determine what precautions are necessary before moving human resources into a disaster area.
While drone deployment primarily centers on observation, newer equipment is available that can help support auxiliary tasks. With fewer firefighters required to execute these crucial operations, drones lessen the risk to human responders.
An example is the Unmanned Aerial Truck (UAT) by KAMAN, which provides supply transport with a maximum payload of 6,000 lbs. The UAT can facilitate airdrops in hot zones, improving the efficiency of supply lines when combating wildfires or other major conflagrations.
Drones are also being used to help firefighters set prescribed burns. A prototype drone was developed by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to drop balls that will ignite after several seconds. With this implementation, firefighters can provide a safe and efficient means to undertake key fire management tasks.
Mission-critical drone use is delayed by policy debate
Civilian drones far exceed the current adoption by emergency response teams. Coupled with fuzzy guidance from the FAA, use of UAVs to gawk at highly-visible emergencies can lead the public to believe flying their drones around a fire is acceptable.
When unauthorized vehicles are flown near fires, the firefighters’ ability to respond is hampered. They must ground their own aerial vehicles—used for mission-critical operations like dropping water on fires—until civilians are cleared of the airspace. This has occurred several times during the 2015 wildfires in California, and in at least one case prevented firefighters from reaching burning cars on a San Bernardino highway.
As has been the case since 2012, the FAA is methodically formalizing regulations for drones. In late 2015, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced that non-commercial drones will be subject to the same registration and regulation as commercially-operated unmanned aircraft, although specifics of that process were not concrete.
The challenges confronting fire departments regarding deployment of drones may limit their use, but certainly the potential benefits warrant continued consideration. In time, the FAA will clarify how civilian and public safety aerial vehicles can coexist. When that happens, fire departments should already understand how this technology can support their mission and be prepared to implement new policy.